Small College Sports

Coe's Hunter Semelroth puts football in perspective while embracing his journey

Kohawk senior keeps former Benton Community coach on his mind

Coe defensive back Hunter Semelroth (24) is congratulated by Desi Wiley (8) after an interception against Cornell at Clark Field in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
Coe defensive back Hunter Semelroth (24) is congratulated by Desi Wiley (8) after an interception against Cornell at Clark Field in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Hunter Semelroth is a man on a mission this season.

Motivation comes in many forms for the Coe senior defensive back.

He wants to improve last year’s second-team all-conference performance and help the Kohawks to an American Rivers Conference title in his final season.

If that wasn’t enough to drive him, Semelroth draws inspiration from playing for a high school coach and family friend, Jeff Zittergruen, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the spring.

“I’m playing for a lot of things this year,” Semelroth said. “I’ve been playing this game for 16 years. This is my last go-around. I just have to leave it all on the field.”

Semelroth leads Coe in tackles and sits atop the A-R-C with three interceptions, earning the league’s Defensive Player of the Week honor for his contribution in a 24-7 victory over Loras last week. He will return to the field Saturday when the Kohawks host Luther at Clark Field, beginning at 1 p.m.

Through three games, the second-team all-West Region pick by d3football.com has 16.5 tackles, including one for loss. Semelroth was credited with 12 tackles, an interception and two pass break-ups last week.

“I felt he had a really good summer and worked his butt off at the field almost every day,” Coe Coach Tyler Staker said. “He’s been a pretty committed football player and one of our leaders without a question.

“He’s having some pretty good success so far in our season.”

Semelroth was a standout at Benton Community. Zittergruen returned to the Bobcats as an assistant coach at the same time Semelroth entered high school. Zittergruen, also a Benton alumnus, used to work for Semelroth’s mother at Tara Hills Country Club in Van Horne.

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The bond strengthened through football and the player-coach relationship. Zittergruen had a hand in promoting him to varsity as a high school sophomore, trusting him to make plays.

“We got really close,” Semelroth said. “He was the one that instilled the hard work ethic in me.”

On his left wrist right below a band for his team, Semelroth wears a black band with blue letters. It reads, “Z Strong” and “Total Effort,” honoring Zittergruen, who has taken over the head coaching duties at Benton.

Zittergruen has undergone treatment, including surgery to remove his thyroid before the end of last school year. Semelroth said the cancer returned and the battle continues.

“I wear this bracelet for him,” Semelroth said. “I’ve been close with him my whole life. I wear that so he’s with me on the field.”

Watching his former coach face tougher opponents than he will ever see in football, Semelroth gained some perspective. Nothing in a game or practice is as dire as what others may face in real life.

“You don’t take the little things in life for granted,” Semelroth said. “On the football field, you can be battling some adversity and him fighting this gives me more motivation to overcome that adversity.”

Football has always been a passion for Semelroth. He recalled how much he loved watching games with his dad, Jeff, as a kid. He started playing in Metro Youth Football Association and, as a prep, was determined to play college football.

The sport has been a big part of 21-year-old’s life.

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“Football is the ultimate team sport,” Semelroth said. “I like the aspect that everyone comes together and has their own job to do. Just trusting your brothers is important to me.”

College football hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Like most freshmen, Semelroth played junior varsity. He spent the first seven games his sophomore campaign mired in the depth chart at third-string defensive back.

He continued to work and finally received a chance to take the field in Week 8, coincidentally, against Luther. He remembered Kohawks assistant Andrew Johnson approach him during breakfast on game day to tell him he would get repetitions due to injuries.

Semelroth was thrilled to let loved ones know and focused on taking advantage of the opportunity.

“I called my parents right away,” Semelroth said. “I said, ‘tell the family I’m playing.’ I was really excited. I went out there and made the most of it. I had a few pass break-ups.”

The following week’s game against Dubuque included more playing time and his first interception. He captured the starting spot and has since emerged as a leader. Even though Semelroth doubted his stock for a little more than a year, Staker said coaches knew he could be special.

“His high school highlight film his senior year was outstanding,” Staker said. “He made more diving interceptions than any high school football player that I can remember. I knew he was very capable of playing at this level.”

Staker said Semelroth really worked hard after that season, putting on 10 to 15 pounds to look better physically and returning in much better shape. It led to a breakout season a year ago.

Semelroth was third in tackles with 44.5 and tied for second in the A-R-C with five interceptions. He altered his mental approach from not trying to mess up to trusting his ability to perform each play.

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His highlight was a two-interception game against Buena Vista, including a 97-yard return for a touchdown. It was the first time he earned conference Defensive Player of the Week honors and the only time until this week.

“It gave me confidence,” Semelroth said. “It gave me a good boost the rest of the season.”

Staker said before the season that Semelroth will be called on to shut down the opposition’s top passing target each week. He noted it is too early to say whether he has but he is off to a strong start.

“He’s a really good corner,” Staker said. “One of the best in the conference.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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